Literary Review

Wandering in Hindostan

In the Court of the Ranee of Jhansi and Other Travels; John Lang, Speaking Tiger, Rs.250.  

John Lang’s In the Court of the Ranee of Jhansi and Other Travels in India is a delightful cameo — one of the first books from the newly established imprint, Speaking Tree. Lang, an Australian-born barrister educated in Cambridge, died in Mussoorie in 1864 at the age of 48, after spending many years in India. He represented such prominent clients as Rani of Jhansi, before she became a rebel and a martyr, in diplomatic battles with the East India Company. As a journalist, travel writer and diarist, Lang wrote copiously, and published much, including a few novels. But lest the reader imagine that I provide this author background — culled from the perfunctory author’s note in the book and the increasingly reliable Wikipedia — as a historian of colonial India I must confess that I discovered him through this book, and was blissfully ignorant of his writings until then.

Although Lang appears to have missed the action of 1857, spending some years in England during the 1850s, one can hear the whirring of the great rebellion in the background. Not being a part of the government but a member of a tribe described contemporaneously, and contemptuously, as ‘adventurers’ and ‘interlopers’, and even representing the potentates who later became rebels against the Raj, Lang does not let the events of 1857 colour his accounts of the Rani of Jhansi and Nana Sahib (Lang wrote a short sketch, not included in this volume, of the other rebel Tantia Tope, too). Though one must add that the text is peppered with references to the massacres, which were soon eclipsed by the brutality of the English, perpetrated by the rebels. Lang’s portraits of the Rani and Nana Sahib scarcely show a hint of the heroism they would display barely a few years later. Such is the force of historical circumstances that turn the bearers of ‘hollow crowns’ into haloed figures of nationalist hagiography.

Two other themes pervade the book. In a chapter entitled ‘Indian Society’, Lang provides a delightfully comic-critical piece on the wrangling for superiority and precedence (precisely the same trifles which the English accused the natives of making a big deal about) between the civil and the military. The context is the arrival of a senior member of the Company to the garrison town of Agra. The tense compromises arrived at between the two groups are upset by the unconventionality of the visitor leading to a long drawn-out battle that reaches up to Leadenhall Street, the headquarters of the East India Company, but never get resolved.

Lang encountered India in the comparatively racially innocent times before 1857. Cultural codes are in place but there is greater space for the interaction of natives and the English, even leading up to miscegenation unlike the strongly entrenched notions of social distance that characterised later day interactions. This social context provides the meat for some human interest stories. In ‘The Mahommedan Mother’ we encounter the utterly devoted mother who waits in the cold and rain of Mussoorie hoping to catch a glimpse of her six-year-old son born to a white magistrate who is oblivious of her existence. In ‘Black and Blue’, the archetypal Kabuli wallah is the guardian of a boy born once again of mixed parentage who ultimately claims his peerage in England. If the Wildean adage of truth being stranger than fiction is recalled, these two vignettes are top contenders for that status. But these narratives may appear melodramatic to the contemporary reader. The book itself ends on a poignant note about a churchyard carefully maintained by an old Englishman. And it seems that the dead tell even better tales than the living.

For a little-known journalist, these writings travel the century and a half of its first composition quite effortlessly. Give or take a few quaint usages and spellings (especially of place names), the writing is startlingly contemporary. Detailed yet sparkling with quiet humour, this book is a delightful read. Lang revels in regnant stereotypes about Indians though one can argue that they are offset by the none too complimentary portrayal of English foibles.

While commending Speaking Tree for issuing this book, it must be said that a short prefatory note or introduction that sets up the book is sadly lacking. There is not even a note on when the book was first published or even if it originated in this form. A quick Internet search revealed that this book was published in 1861 as Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan, about half a dozen vignettes left out from it.

In the Court of the Ranee of Jhansi and Other Travels; John Lang, Speaking Tiger, Rs.250.


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